Gender plays an important role in Cambodian social life. In Phnom Penh, clusters of men sit in restaurants and litter the street corners. I rarely see a group of girlfriends chatting around a table for lunch.
At night this division becomes more apparent. Men meet at restaurants and karaoke bars to indulge in a night of drinking and bonding. For men, many nights in Phnom Penh end with the purchase of sex. In 2007, a study of men who frequent entertainment venues, karaoke and bars, revealed 53% had paid for sex in the last 12 months with an average of 8 partners. (The unfortunate outcome of this statistic is every time I meet a Cambodian male I question whether or not they fall into that 53%.)
Cambodian masculinity centers on group inclusion and confirmation. When a group decision is made to end a night at a brothel, one member rarely refuses because of the Cambodian tendency to avoid conflict and high levels of peer pressure. Many men admit they pay for sex because they don’t want to feel excluded from their social groups. Some report waiting outside brothels while their friends have sex, but more admit to following the pack.
In Cambodia, masculinity implies an inability to control sexual desires and actions. Many men consider sexual self-restraint biologically impossible.
I ride in the passenger seat of ADDA’s company car. An hour outside Siem Reap we turn off the pavement and head down potholed dirt roads. Wooden stilt houses and flooded green rice paddies flank the sides. The villages become smaller and more remote. I think of how few travelers venture here (too busy touring the Angkor temples). Despite visible poverty, it’s refreshing to witness Cambodian lifestyle not centered on tourism.
I’m accompanied by three women: Visal, the gender specialist at ADDA, a native Cambodian working toward her master’s degree who wishes she could study abroad; Sophie, a Danish summer trainee/intern at ADDA; and Leng, also a Cambodian and employee of ADDA.
We arrive at Doun Diev village. Seventeen men and women wait for us under a thatched roof. Their smiles beam, masking the hardship of village life. They greet us and maintain eye contact, laughing and chatting with each other – all indications of an empowered group of women. Visal tells me when ADDA began working with this group in 2007 the women were reserved and timid. Three years later, they exude confidence. Continue reading
I said I wouldn’t discuss women’s issues until I started my position in Cambodia, but I had the urge to write.
I don’t consider myself a feminist under the stereotypical interpretation of the word. I’m not going to preach that all women are victims and all men are evil because that’s not the truth. And I’m not going to try to convince you that American women should be paid higher salaries because who really cares?
I believe every human has a right to education, security, and choice. Unfortunately, many women face illiteracy, violence, and a voiceless existence on a daily basis. But instead of dramatizing their plight it’s important to view them as the solution. These issues are not inevitable. They can be solved. It’s just a massive task that few attempt to tackle.
I completed 16 years of education and no one discussed the marginalization of women. Maybe as a college-educated female no one thought I needed to know? Or maybe an effort was made to shelter me from the disturbing reality? But after my conversations with people about my trip’s purpose, I realized few are informed. This post will give you some background and context to the crucial issues women face around the world. I apologize if some of the information is upsetting, but I think it’s valuable information that everyone should know.
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